What Do New Dads Want to Know? (spoiler alert: it’s how to soothe a fussy baby)

by John Hoffman

A Canadian research group surveyed 174 expectant and new dads.  One question they asked was what information dads were looking for.  I was a little surprised to see that the top answer was how to soothe a fussy baby.

I’ve done my share of soothing fussy babies and I’ve done lots of research and writing on the topic. Here’s my two cents’ worth. But first:

Uncle John’s Rules of Baby Soothing

Rule 1.  Nothing is foolproof. Even the most tried and true soothing methods don’t always work.

Rule. 2.  What works with one baby won’t necessarily work with others.

Rule 3. Babies can’t calm themselves. They sometimes fall asleep in the middle of crying.  But that’s more of a stress response than anything else. Babies need our help to feel soothed. Being soothed by us (over and over again) helps babies’ stress response systems to develop properly.

Rule 4. That stuff they say about checking to see if the baby needs to be changed is vastly overrated. Obviously babies do need to be changed. But don’t expect it to work like magic with a very fussy baby. Same thing goes for burping.

Here are some things that work sometimes. 

Nursing (feeding) is often the answer. You may know this. But I’d say two things.

Breastfeeding is not just about nutrition and hunger. It’s also about comfort, a deep down, primal kind of whole body comfort that is a baby’s favourite way of feeling better. Secondly, newborn babies need to nurse a lot, more often than some people think. Frequent nursing helps breastfeeding to work. So don’t be afraid that your baby is nursing too often, and don’t think you’re “giving in” by giving the baby to Mom to nurse.

Nursing problems can contribute to fussiness. If you think that might be the case, get help from someone who knows a lot about breastfeeding.

Bottle feeding? I don’t know much about it, so I can’t say if it comforts babies the way breastfeeding does. But one thing is s very clear. Babies are comforted by sucking. That’s why pacifiers often work. Some babies won’t take one and breastfeeding pundits worry that pacifiers can interfere with breastfeeding. That can be true, especially if the pacifier is started before breastfeeding is well established. However, I’ve known a number of well breastfed babies, including one of ours, who used pacifiers in their spare time. Babies can suck on your little finger too. One of mine used to suck on my wrist when I held him belly down along my forearm (sometimes called the football hold).

However, feeding is not always the answer. I’ve seen babies who acted like they wanted to nurse and then fussed and sputtered at the breast as if they hated it. This is a really, really good time for Dad to step in and try his luck.

Beyond feeding the chief soothing tools are physical contact and movement.  People have been using physical contact and movement to soothe babies for centuries. Try using a carrier. Walk around the house carrying the baby while listening to music. Jiggle her a little bit.  Try going outside. Sometimes a change of scenery or temperature seems to distract fussy babies a bit.

Skin-to-skin contact is especially good for really young infants. It has a proven biological impact. It’s not always an instant fix for a really fussy baby, but it’s worth a try. And it’s a good prevention strategy.

Speaking of which…. The ideal soothing tactic is to prevent your baby from getting into that ultra fussy state in the first place. If your baby is, say, very fussy each evening, start carrying her around in a carrier at 5:00 pm. This can sometimes prevent that ultra fussiness which is really hard to fix.

Swaddling has been used in a lot of cultures over the centuries. Some experts swear by it and others disapprove. Most of the concerns have to do with safety and they can be addressed through proper technique. Here’s a link to a Today’s Parent article that will show you how to do it.

Saying “Shhh, shhh, shhh, shhh” into your baby’s ear as you walk your baby around, including the well-known American pediatrician Harvey Karp. Sounds odd to me but some people say this works. It’s supposed to simulate the sound babies heard in the womb.  Just remember it’s also supposed to be soothing and not irritating (ie, too loud, to forceful, etc.).

Baby swings and car rides. Physical contact is really important for babies. So I’m not a huge fan of soothing techniques that involve putting babies in “containers.” Not as a first line strategy anyways. But desperate parents need all the tools and tricks they can get. Lots of guys have put their babies in the car and driven the streets, even in the middle of the night.

If you’ve tried every trick you can think of, take a break, and then go back to the beginning and try everything again. Something that didn’t work the first time might work the second time.

Beyond that, the sad truth is that there are times when nothing works. Some babies cry a lot in the early months. Research has shown this time and time again. There are various theories as to why this happens, but nobody really knows for sure.

So, if you have one of those babies it’s not your fault. Uncontrollable persistent crying should always be checked out by a doctor. But usually there’s nothing wrong medically.

Just do your best. Take breaks when you need it. I’m not a fan of leaving babies to cry, but if you’re at the end of your rope, put the baby down somewhere safe. Some parents have lost control and hurt their babies, which you obviously don’t want to do. What’s more, if you’re really riled up you’re not going to be at your soothing best.  Let some one else take over. And take turns with your partner. Watch for signs your partner is at the end of their rope.  Get other people to help you when possible. Persistent baby crying is really tough. But it always ends sooner or later.

What soothing techniques have worked for your family?

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